Raging floodwaters from what emergency officials described as a 1,000-year event hit West Virginia on June 23-24, claiming at least 23 lives and testing the resolve of first-responders and whole communities—including long term care facilities.

Intense rainstorms quickly filled creeks and rivers. Fast-rising floodwaters destroyed property, isolated communities, and endangered tens of thousands, including numerous long term care facility residents, employees, and their families. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency on June 24 in 44 of the state’s 55 counties. Federal Emergency Management Agency officials arrived to evaluate damage.

At least three West Virginia long term care facilities coped with the disaster:

  • In Richwood, W.Va., fast-rising water forced the evacuation of 96 residents in the Nicholas County Nursing & Rehabilitation Center. Water in the building reportedly was five feet deep.
  • Pine View Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Harrisville evacuated all 56 residents after torrential rain overwhelmed the local sewage system, gushing water into the building through toilets.
  • In Rainelle, where at least three area residents died during the disaster, floodwater surrounded the Meadow Garden long term care facility. The isolated building lost commercial power, water, and telephone service.

The West Virginia Health Care Association (WVHCA) notified members about the flooding and evacuations, and the members accepted dozens of residents who had to be evacuated from their facilities.

Nicholas County Nursing & Rehabilitation Center

As floodwaters rose in Richwood, Nicholas County Nursing & Rehabilitation Center employees safely evacuated 95 residents in less than an hour as water rose in the building.

Staff members initially took the center’s residents to higher ground at nearby Liberty Baptist Church before assigning them to 24 facilities in the state.

Several Nicholas County Nursing and Rehabilitation employees lost their homes and/or all possessions, but they feel fortunate to be alive, that their families are safe, and their residents are okay.

Platinum Healthcare, owner of Nicholas County Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, provided comments from the caregivers who support residents in the facility.

“It was just devastating,” said Mary Overbaugh of the Nicholas staff. “The water was running off the hillside, mudslides coming right into town. It wasn’t just the river, the water came up instantly.

“We were in water waist deep—trying to get our residents out of the building. It was horrifying,” she said.

“I have been with the facility for 18 years, and these people are my family,” Overbaugh continued. “We had to carry them up the hillside and laid them on blankets. We didn’t think about anything except that we had to get our residents to safety.

“We got them all out safe and didn’t lose any lives. We got them out. The water came up so fast, it was horrifying. Like I said, that’s my family. You take care of your family.”

Nicholas colleague Mary Caufield said, “I want our residents to know how proud I am of them. I am sure this was difficult, and some had to come out through the water. They are so brave. We just want them to be safe and happy. 

“We were doing our job, but they were troopers,” Caufield said. “They are so brave!”

Sherry Gower, a licensed practical nurse at Nicholas for 26 years, considers her colleagues and the residents to be family as well.

“We have staff members that lost their homes, and they did not leave our residents. They stayed with them to make sure they were all safe without thinking of their own homes and losses,” she said.

“I just want to commend them and all the people that helped our residents to safety: the ambulances, the school buses that came to transport, former employees, and the community surrounding the building showing up to help and the other facilities that came immediately to pick up our residents and admit to their facilities three and four and five at a time, bringing warm blankets and clothing for immediate needs.”

Pine View Nursing and Rehabilitation Center

Owner and Administrator Lynda Kirk said Pine View staff members recognized their challenge immediately and took action. They notified local emergency responders after water entered the building and initially moved residents to the local Lion’s Club.

From there, Pine View sent 27 residents to a sister facility, Mound View Health Care, in Moundsville, W.Va., about 75 miles away. Twenty residents went to hospitals in adjoining counties.

With the assistance of Stonerise—a West Virginia-based long term care company—Kirk quickly placed the remaining residents. All were safely housed by 5:00 p.m. Thursday, June 23, said Kirk, who expressed her appreciation for the quick, professional response from Stonerise management.

A former president of the West Virginia Health Care Association, Kirk credited her staff with responding promptly and professionally.

“I’ve worked in this business since I was eight years old, and I’ve never had to evacuate a building,” said Kirk, who recently celebrated her 80th birthday with a party at Pine View. “We take our drills very seriously, and this proves you cannot have enough drills.”

She said she hopes to reopen the facility in about one month.

Meadow Garden

Administrator Brenda Holster began working at Meadow Garden in March, and she already has seen her staff meet an unprecedented challenge head on.

Holster said she and her team began to realize the magnitude of flooding on June 23, when day-shift employees returned to Meadow Garden, unable to get home.

Meadow Garden soon would lose utility services as thunderstorms drove up the level of a nearby stream. Water surrounded the building. Employees could neither leave nor get to Meadow Garden, and many at work knew their homes were at risk from flooding. One employee’s grandson perished in the flood.

“We watched the water rising,” Holster said. “Through [Thursday] evening, we put together a plan—who would work and who would sleep and how we would take care of residents.”

Fortunately, floodwater didn’t enter the facility, which is situated on a knoll, Holster said. In the meantime, Meadow Garden staff took in local residents who escaped the high water, warmed them, and gave them food.

The community, she said, generously assisted. Four young men brought diesel fuel for the facility’s generator. On Friday, two Virginia firefighters and a West Virginia state trooper transported two registered nurses, an LPN, and the maintenance supervisor in a raft to Meadow Garden to provide the staff much-needed relief.

Lack of telephone service created problems, Holster said. Some residents’ families believed Meadow Garden evacuated its residents, and they had no way of knowing their loved ones were safe in the Rainelle facility.

After the water subsided, Harper Mills—a sister Stonerise facility in Beckley—brought fresh linens and took away dirty laundry so Meadow Garden staff could concentrate on caring for the facility’s 59 residents, Holster said.

“The residents were good,” she said. “We tried to keep everything as normal as we could.”

Sadly, she said, six or seven Meadow Garden employees lost their homes, and 25 employees altogether—about one-third of the work force—lost personal belongings.

The ordeal gave Holster a picture of employees who responded professionally and effectively under duress.

“Not one person worked alone,” she said. “They pulled together as a team. They knew what needed to be done, and they took care of it. It was an ordeal, but it shows what you’re made of.

“There were a lot of people praying for us, and their prayers were answered,” she said.

“I feel like I work in the best building in West Virginia, and I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.”

Dan Page is director of communications of the West Virginia Health Care Association.